• 30 October 2014
  • 11:00 – 11:45 am

This paper will examine a hitherto overlooked mode of invention that is based on the manipulation of established image types in thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century English illuminated psalters. Scrutiny of a group of historiated initials featuring kings David and Solomon in these psalters will demonstrate how this mode creates novel illustrations through recombining and relocating traditional imagery rather than generating new imagery de novo. The initials for Psalms 1 and 38 in the Cuerden Psalter (Morgan Library, M.756), made in Oxford circa 1270, exemplify this creative mode. The illustration for Psalm 38 depicts Christ seated on a throne in the center with a harping David on his left, and a second king kneeling to his right. The iconography is new, but comparison with earlier English psalters reveals that the scene is an imaginative amalgam of more traditional illustrations of Psalms 38 and 109. The same approach appears in the psalter's Beatus initial, where a customary image of David making music in the upper loop of the letter is paired with the Judgment of Solomon below, which had typically appeared with Psalm 38 in earlier English psalters. This creative recombination of Davidic and Solomonic scenes at Psalm 1 occurs in seven other luxury English psalters from the same period.

The creative expression in these Beatus initials comes not from their stereotyped component scenes, but from the artists' manipulation of traditions of Psalm illustration and innovative combination of scenes. Such an inventive mode balances novelty with norm by leaving intact the familiar image types but resetting them in new arrangements in new locations. The result is tradition masquerading as novelty, or, conversely, novelty with the patina of the past. The creative mechanism employed in these images, moreover, strongly suggests that the artists and patrons possessed an almost connoisseurial knowledge of earlier English psalter illustration. The rapidly rising influence of Parisian Psalm iconography from the mid-thirteenth century onward may have formed a perceptible tide of change against which notions of distinctively English and increasingly outmoded forms of illustration could emerge and coalesce. That the new combinations of David and Solomon were aimed to recall a tradition, even as they instantiated it, is indicated by the fact that these illustrations of Psalm 1 and Psalm 38 bear only tenuous links to the actual Psalm text. Instead, the inventive mode seems calculated in response to other concerns pertaining more to the psalters as prestige objects. Although the addition of Solomon may seem superfluous as an illustration of the text of Psalm 1, his insistent presence highlights his status as David's son. In light of this genealogical orientation, the illustrations perhaps embodied the aspirations of the wealthy owners of the manuscripts who often marked themselves in the books through portraits, coats-of-arms, prayers, and obits. Undoubtedly these patrons desired male heirs to continue the family line with its wealth, titles, and property. From this vantage, inventive manipulation of established image types in itself evoked ideals of dynastic continuity in the face of generational change.

About the speaker

  • Kerry Paul Boeye is Assistant Professor of Art History at Loyla University of Maryland